Rapid technological advances. Increased wealth. Stress. Stable lives and careers come under the pressure of accelerating change. The twenty-first century? No, the sixth century BC—a time of destructive warfare, economic dislocation, and widespread disruption of established patterns of life, just like today. In conditions similar to ours, the Buddha discovered a path to lasting happiness. His discovery—a step-by-step method of mental training to achieve contentment—is as relevant today as ever.
Putting the Buddha’s discovery into practice is no quick fix. It can take years. The most important qualification at the beginning is a strong desire to change your life by adopting new habits and learning to see the world anew.
Each step along the Buddha’s path to happiness requires practising mindfulness until it becomes part of your daily life. Mindfulness is a way of training yourself to become aware of things as they really are. With mindfulness as your watchword, you progress through the eight steps laid down by the Buddha more than twenty-five hundred years ago—a gentle, gradual training in how to end dissatisfaction.
Who should undertake this training? Anyone who is tired of being unhappy. `My life is good as it is,’ you may think; `I’m happy enough.’ There are moments of contentment in any life, moments of pleasure and joy. But what about the other side, the part that you’d rather not think about when things are going well? Tragedy, grief, disappointment, physical pain, melancholy, loneliness, resentment, the nagging feeling that there could be something better. These happen too, don’t they? Our fragile happiness depends on things happening a certain way. But there is something else: a happiness not dependent on conditions. The Buddha taught the way to find this perfect happiness.
If you are willing to do whatever it takes to find your way out of suffering—and it means confronting the roots of resistance and craving right here, right now—you can reach complete success. Even if you are a casual reader, you can benefit from these teachings, so long as you are willing to use those that make sense to you. If you know something to be true, don’t ignore it. Act on it!
That may sound easy, but nothing is more difficult. When you admit to yourself, `I must make this change to be more happy’—not because the Buddha said so, but because your heart recognises a deep truth—you must devote all your energy to making the change. You need strong determination to overcome harmful habits.
But the payoff is happiness—not just for today but for always.
Let’s get started. We’ll begin by looking at what happiness is, why it’s so elusive, and how to start journeying on the Buddha’s path toward it.
What happiness is and what it isn’t
The desire to be happy is age-old, yet happiness has always eluded us. What does it mean to be happy? We often seek an experience of sensual pleasure, such as eating something tasty or watching a fun movie, for the happiness it will bring us. But is there a happiness beyond the fleeting enjoyment of a pleasurable experience?
Some people try to string together as many enjoyable experiences as they can and call that a happy life. Others sense the limits of sensual indulgence and seek a more lasting happiness with material comforts, family life, and security. Yet these sources of happiness also have limitations. Throughout the world many people live with the pain of hunger; their basic needs for clothing and shelter go unmet; they endure the constant threat of violence. Understandably, these people believe that increased material comfort will bring them lasting happiness. In the United States the unequal distribution of wealth leaves many in poverty, but the starvation and deprivation commonly found in much of the world is rare. The standard of living of most US citizens is luxurious. So people elsewhere assume that Americans must be among the happiest on earth.
But if they were to come to the United States, what would they see? They would notice that Americans are constantly busy—rushing to appointments, talking on cell phones, shopping for groceries or for clothes, working long hours in an office or in a factory. Why all this frantic activity?
The answer is simple. Although Americans seem to have everything, they are still unhappy. And they are puzzled by this. How can they have close, loving families, good jobs, fine homes, enough money, richly varied lives—and still not feel happy? Unhappiness, they believe, results from the lack of such things. Possessions, social approval, the love of friends and family, and a wealth of pleasurable experiences ought to make people happy. Why, then, do Americans, like people everywhere, so often experience misery instead?
It seems that the very things that we think should make people happy are in fact sources of misery. Why? They do not last. Relationships end, investments fail, people lose their jobs, kids grow up and move away, and the sense of wellbeing gained from costly possessions and pleasurable experiences is fleeting at best. Change is all around us, threatening the very things we think we need to be happy. It’s a paradox that the more we have, the greater our possibility for unhappiness.
People today are ever more sophisticated in their needs, it’s true, but no matter how many expensive and beautiful things they collect, they want more. Modern culture reinforces this wanting. What you really need to be happy, as every TV ad and billboard proclaims, is this shiny new car, this super fast computer, this gorgeous vacation in Hawaii. And it seems to work, briefly. People confuse the buzz of excitement gained from a new possession or a pleasurable experience with happiness. But all too soon they’re itching again. The suntan fades, the new car gets a scratch, and they’re longing for another shopping spree. This incessant scrambling to the mall keeps them from discovering the source of true happiness.
The sources of happiness
The Buddha once described several categories of happiness, placing them in order from the most fleeting to the most profound.
The lesser happiness of clinging
The Buddha lumped together almost everything that most of us call happiness in the lowest category. He called it the `happiness of sensual pleasures.’ We could also call it the `happiness of favourable conditions’ or the `happiness of clinging.’ It includes all the fleeting worldly happiness derived from sense indulgence, physical pleasure, and material satisfaction: the happiness of possessing wealth, nice clothes, a new car, or a pleasing home; the enjoyment that comes from seeing beautiful things, listening to good music, eating good food, and enjoying pleasant conversations; the satisfaction of being skilled in painting, playing the piano, and the like; and the happiness that comes from sharing a warm family life.
Let us look more closely at this happiness of sensual pleasures. Its lowest form is the wholehearted indulgence in pleasure from any of the five physical senses. At its worst, overindulgence can lead to debauchery, depravity, and addiction. It’s easy to see that indulging the senses is not happiness, because the pleasure disappears almost immediately and may even leave people feeling wretched or remorseful.
The Buddha once explained that as one matures spiritually, one comes to understand that there is more to life than pleasure through the five senses. He used the metaphor of a tender little baby tied down by thin strings in five places: both wrists, both ankles, and the throat. Just as these five strings—the five sense pleasures—can hold down a baby but not a mature adult, who easily breaks free, so a discerning person breaks free from the idea that indulging the five senses makes life meaningful and happy. (Sutta 8 of the Majjhima Nikaya.)
Worldly happiness, however, goes beyond sense indulgence. It includes the joys of reading, watching a good movie, and other forms of mental stimulation or entertainment. It also includes the wholesome joys of this world such as helping people, maintaining a stable family and raising children, and earning an honest living.
The Buddha mentioned a few of these more satisfying forms of happiness. One is the happy, secure feeling you get from possessing wealth earned through honest, hard work. You enjoy your wealth with a clear conscience and no fear of abuse or revenge. Better than this is the satisfaction of both enjoying the wealth that you earned honestly and also sharing it with others. Another especially gratifying form of happiness comes from reflecting that one is completely free of any kind of debt to anyone. (Volume 2 of the Anguttara Nikaya, part 7, chapter 2.)
Most of us, even the most discerning, view these things as the essence of a good life. Why did the Buddha consider them part of the lowest form of happiness? Because they depend on conditions being right. Though less fleeting than the transient pleasures of sensual indulgence, and less potentially destructive to long-term happiness, they are unstable. The more we trust them, seek them, and try to hang on to them, the more we suffer. Our efforts will create painful mental agitation and ultimately prove futile; conditions inevitably will change. No matter what we do, our hearts will break. There are better, more stable sources of happiness.
Higher sources of happiness
One of them is the `happiness of renunciation,’ the spiritual happiness that comes from seeking something beyond worldly pleasures. The classic example is the joy that comes from dropping all worldly concerns and seeking solitude in peaceful surroundings to pursue spiritual development. The happiness that comes from prayer, religious rituals, and religious inspiration is also part of this category.
Generosity is a powerful form of renunciation. Generously sharing what we have, and many other acts of renunciation, make us feel happy. There is a sense of pleasure and relief every time we let go. It stands to reason that if we can let go completely of grasping at anything in the world, then this great relinquishment will bring even more happiness than occasional acts of renunciation.
Higher than relinquishment of material things is the `happiness of letting go of psychic irritants.’ This kind of happiness arises naturally when we work with the mind to quickly let go of anger, desire, attachment, jealousy, pride, confusion, and other mental irritations every time they occur. Nipping them in the bud allows the mind to become unobstructed, joyful, bright, and clear. Yet there is no guarantee that the negativities will stay away and stop irritating the mind.
Even better is the refined pleasure and happiness of the various states of deep concentration. No sorrow can arise in these states. Powerful and transcendent as these states of concentration can be, however, they have one big drawback: the meditator must emerge from them eventually. Being impermanent, even states of profound concentration must come to an end.
The highest source of happiness
The highest happiness is the bliss of attaining stages of enlightenment. With each stage, our load in life is lightened, and we feel greater happiness and freedom. The final stage of enlightenment, permanent freedom from all negative states of mind, brings uninterrupted, sublime happiness. The Buddha recommended that we learn to let go of our attachments to the lower forms of happiness and focus all of our efforts upon finding the very highest form of happiness, enlightenment.
But he also urged people to maximise their happiness at whatever level they can. For those of us who cannot see beyond the happiness based on the sense pleasures, he offered sage advice for avoiding worldly troubles and for finding optimal worldly happiness, for example, by cultivating qualities leading to material success or a satisfying family life. For those with the higher ambition to be reborn in blissful realms, he explained just how to accomplish that goal. For those interested in reaching the highest goal of full enlightenment, he taught how to achieve it. But whichever kind of happiness we are seeking, we make use of the steps of the Eightfold Path.
The trap of unhappiness
The Buddha knew that the relentless search for happiness in pleasurable worldly conditions traps us in an endless cycle of cause and effect, attraction and aversion. Each thought and word and deed is a cause that leads to an effect, which in turn becomes a cause. Pointing out how the cycle of unhappiness works, the Buddha said:
Because of feeling, there is craving; as a result of craving, there is pursuit; with pursuit, there is gain; in dependence upon gain, there is decision-making; with decision-making, there are desire and lust, which lead to attachment; attachment creates possessiveness, which leads to stinginess; in dependence upon stinginess, there is safeguarding; and because of safeguarding, various evil, unwholesome phenomena [arise]—conflicts, quarrels, insulting speech, and falsehoods. (Sutta 15 of the Digha Nikaya.)
We each experience versions of this cycle every day. Say you’re shopping in the grocery store. You see a delicious-looking pie with red filling and fluffy white topping. It’s the last pie left. Though only a moment before, your mind was quiet and content, this sight, which the Buddha calls `contact between sense organ and sense object,’ causes a pleasant feeling and pleasant thoughts to arise.
Craving arises from the pleasant feeling. `Mmmm…strawberry,’ you say to yourself, `with real whipped cream topping.’ Your mind pursues and expands upon these pleasant thoughts. How delicious strawberry pie is! How good it smells! How wonderful whipped cream feels on the lips and tongue! A decision follows: `I want to have some of that pie.’ Now comes attachment: `That pie is mine.’ Maybe you notice some aversion as your mind hesitates for a moment while it considers the negative effects of the pie on your waistline or your pocketbook. Suddenly you realise that someone else has stopped at the display and is admiring this pie. Your pie! Seized with stinginess, you snatch it up and hurry to the checkout while the other shopper glares. In the unlikely event that the other shopper were to follow you into the parking lot and try to take your pie, imagine what unwholesome actions might take place—insults probably, maybe a shoving match. But even if there is no direct confrontation, your actions have caused another person to develop negative thoughts and to see you as a greedy person. Your contented state of mind has also been destroyed.
Once craving arises in the mind, selfish and stingy behaviour is usually inevitable. In our drive for any kind of small pleasure—a piece of strawberry pie—we may act rudely and risk making an enemy. When the craving is for something major, such as someone’s valuables or an adulterous sexual contact, the stakes are much higher, and serious violence and endless suffering may result.
If we can reverse this cycle, starting from our negative behaviour and moving backward step by step to its emotional and mental causes, we may be able to eliminate our unhappiness at its source. It only makes sense that when our craving and grasping is wiped out—completely eradicated—happiness is assured. We may have no idea how to accomplish such a feat, but when we recognise what we have to do, we have started our journey.
Born in Sri Lanka, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana was ordained as a Buddhist monk at the age of twelve. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from American University, and has taught courses in Buddhism at several American colleges. He has also lectured and led meditation retreats throughout North America, Europe, and Australasia. Bhante Gunaratana is the abbot of the Bhavana Society monastery in West Virginia, where he now lives.
The above is an extract from his book, Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness: Walking the Buddha’s path, reproduced here courtesy of Wisdom Publications.
May 2001 Buddhism Now